As I mentioned in my Hello Cupcake review, the DC Cupcake boom has inspired me to check out DC bakeries, in a personal quest to better know the District’s cupcakes. First on my pilgrimage was DC’s Cake Love, a local bakery chain that rose to fame on a tide of “all natural” cakes and founder Warren Brown’s compelling personal story.
I’ve written about the Cake Love controversy before, so I’ll spare you a big giant rehash of why people love, and love to hate, Warren Brown’s baby. Ask any Washingtonian who’s past the “I just moved here and am drinking myself into a stupor every night in Adams Morgan” stage and, believe me, they’ll have an opinion on Cake Love.
The taste-test took place a couple of weeks ago at Love Cafe, which is part of the Cake Love empire. It’s down on U-Street and fifteenth, right across the road from Cake Love itself.
At first I intended to just try the cupcakes, but one look at the bakery display case changed my mind. The cupcakes looked like afterthoughts compared to the cakes. The cupcake flavor choices looked fine, but very basic (flavors included vanilla with raspberry frosting, chocolate with lime frosting, chocolate with chocolate frosting, and vanilla with raspberry frosting, among others). And the presentation (a flat muffin-topped cupcake with a thin layer of frosting) was very plain, as if the cake decorators had forgotten about them. The cupcakes couldn’t hold a candle to the cakes, which were incredibly enticing (I guess that’s why they don’t call it Cupcake Love). I mean, what would you rather eat – a vanilla cupcake, or a slice of Heavenly Hazy with Coffee Buttercream
My fellow testers and I tried two slices of cake between us, each of which rang in at around $8.00 (to be fair, the slices were huge and could easily feed two or three people). I got a slice of The Mocha Dream, a chocolate cake with mocha buttercream—the cake sang a siren song to the coffee fanatic in me that I was powerless to resist. My fellow tasters had a slice of the Brown Velvet cake, Cake Love’s all-natural take on Red Velvet, which often gets it red color from food coloring. I also got some cupcakes to take home—a chocolate cupcake with chocolate ganache, and a vanilla cupcake with raspberry buttercream.
Despite my good past experiences with Cake Love, I approached my cake with a critical eye. After all, Hello Cupcake has raised the bar for all of DC. But even though I was prepared for a mouthful of ash, what I found was much better than that. The cake was rich and fudgy, although it was a tad too dense for my taste. The frosting was very nice—creamy and smooth, with just the right amount of coffee flavor. The two together were a bit much—the richness of the cake and the frosting together was overwhelming. But I thought it was overall a good piece of cake.
I liked the Brown Velvet cake even more, mostly because the cream cheese frosting had a really lovely tang that offset its sweetness. The cake itself didn’t taste of much besides sugar, butter and a hint of chocolate and, like the other slice, it was a bit dense for my taste. But none of us thought the cake was dry, and I’m not sure why that is such a huge complaint about Cake Love. I mean yes, the cake was a bit drier than a cake that’s been made with oil, but that doesn’t make it dry. As a fellow tester said, “this tastes like a butter cake. This is what butter-based cakes taste like.” Both desserts were very rich, and we were only able to finish about half of each slice.
A note on Love Cafe itself: while I generally liked the desserts, my overall impression of Love Cafe really left something to be desired. The decor was shabby and cluttered, the menus were impossible to find, the service was slow, and even though it was 80 degrees outside they didn’t turn on the air conditioning. I was going to take the other half of my cake home, but by the time we left all the frosting had melted into a giant puddle, costing me about $4 of cake.
Later that night at home, Wonktheplank and I tried the cupcakes, which we liked. The cupcakes’ cake was fluffier and lighter than the cake slices, and I liked the basic, down-home flavorings of both the vanilla and chocolate cakes. The raspberry buttercream frosting was smooth and creamy, and really tasted like raspberries. The ganache was rich, with a deep chocolate flavor. And both these cupcakes held up to an afternoon of being toted around in 80 degree weather, so they obviously were much heartier than my cake slice.
But while these cupcakes were fine, both of us liked Hello Cupcake’s more. “They tasted better. It had the peanut butter” explained Wonktheplank, who is notoriously shy when it comes to expressing his opinion on baked goods. “I liked the way it tasted,” he finished. I personally think that Hello Cupcakes’ founder Penny Karas is really passionate about cupcakes, and her single-minded commitment to making great cupcakes, plus her eye for detail, comes through in her baking.
All in all, I definitely don’t think that Cake Love deserves all the scorn that’s been heaped on it. But I do think I have a better understanding of why some people dislike them so much.
It’s a fine bakery.
It is. It’s fine. Cake Love produces cakes with good flavor profiles and pretty good presentations. And they offer some nice cupcakes.
But Cake Love doesn’t bill itself as a fine bakery. It bills itself as a great bakery. When you read Warren Brown’s inspiring story about how he quit his job as an attorney to pursue his love of baking, you expect great products. When you read about Cake Love’s commitment to using all-natural ingredients, you expect excellence. When you read about Cake Love’s passion, you expect the best.
And what I ate at Cake Love was fine. It was well-made. It was a pretty good product.
But the best? Not even close.